ISET Economist Blog

Making a Break-Through in Gender Equality Will Not Be Easy – That’s Why Evidence-Based Approaches to Policy Should Be Taken Seriously
Friday, 17 January, 2020

On November 15-16, 2019, FREE Network and ISET Policy Institute organized and conducted an international gender economics conference in Tbilisi, Georgia1. The conference brought together researchers, policy-makers, and the broader development community to discuss obstacles to gender equality and women’s economic empowerment, and policies to remove the existing constraints, focusing on Eastern Europe and Emerging Economies. The conference’s opening remarks were offered by two prominent keynote speakers: Dr. Caren Grown, Senior Director for Gender at the World Bank Group, Washington, D.C., and Dr. Shahra Razavi, Chief of Research and Data at UN Women HQ in New York. The subsequent presentations showcased research conducted by academics from over 15 countries, representing 4 continents.

One of the main messages which emerged from the work presented was that making progress in gender equality is neither easy nor straightforward. There are many nuances that have to be taken into account before a relevant policy can be proposed and implemented. These nuances need to be based on scientific evidence, and this is exactly where academic policy-oriented research can help. Below I will present some key results and takeaways from presentations at the conference:


One fact that stood out during the keynote presentations was that progress in women’s access to resources, in particular their access to the labor market, has, on average, stalled worldwide in the last 20 years. Women’s labor market participation rate in 2018 stood at 63% globally, which is largely the same as in 1998, with some notable progress observed only in Latin America and the Caribbean (an increase from 57% to 67% between 1998 and 2018), Australia and New Zealand (70% to 79%), as well as Northern Africa and West Asia (29% to 33%).

Moreover, in most countries around the world, the ratio of time spent on unpaid care work by females was about 3-4 times that of males, with some notable outliers: 11 times in Pakistan, 10 times in Cambodia, and 9 times in Egypt. Thus, clearly, family responsibilities and unpaid work at home have disproportionately burdened women around the world. This arrangement, which may be viewed as voluntary by some people, actually prevents women from having an independent source of labor income and weakens their financial position and bargaining power within the family unit. What can be the solution to this? A recent report by UN Women, Families in the Changing World (2019) argues for implementing a comprehensive package of family and women-friendly policy measures, which would include: universal childhood education and care; universal healthcare coverage; long-term care for older people; income protection over the life-cycle for a child, disability, maternity, and parental leave takers, the unemployed, and the elderly. Needless to say, such a comprehensive package is likely to be expensive – it would cost between 2-4% of GDP for most countries covered by the study. However, as the report argues, the costs of such a program would be partially offset by the economic and tax benefits of formalizing the informal care economy. Moreover, given the importance of these measures, governments should engage in resource mobilization to pay for such packages. For example, improving tax collection, eliminating illicit financial flows, leveraging aid and transfers, etc; would go a long way towards making more resources available for these programs which would help “level the playing field” for women.

When the conference presenters touched upon the situation in the South Caucasus, it became clear that the situation regarding gender inequality in this region has not been tracked deeply and systematically until now. While there exist quite a number of thematic studies, surveys, and narratives, as well as the more general Gender Inequality Index (GII)2 compiled by UNDP for all countries, a deeper systematic approach has recently been pioneered by ISET Policy Institute. ISET-PI has recently embarked on an ambitious project of developing a Gender Equality Index for the South Caucasus and, going forward, for the broader region, including all transition economies. The methodology behind the Index is similar to that adopted by the European Institute for Gender Equality3, which tracks the Gender Equality Index for 28 European countries across a number of dimensions. Obviously, data availability makes it more challenging to build such an index in the context of transition economies. Thus, ISET-PI is working to construct some of the measures for transition economies, using country-level data and household-level databases.


One of the key messages emerging from academic research in the area of childcare policies and their effect on mothers’ labor supply was that gender-focused social policies need to be crafted carefully, with a focus on the binding constraints particular to a specific country’s context. In particular, a paper by Vardan Baghdasaryan and Gayane Barseghyan “Childcare policy, maternal labor supply, and household welfare: Evidence from a natural experiment” looked at how childcare service availability (affordability) affected female labor force participation on the intensive and extensive margins in the case of Armenia. The stage for a natural experiment in economic policy was set when the Municipality of Yerevan unexpectedly made the decision to abolish the subscription fee for childcare services (roughly 15% of the average wage). Researchers hypothesized that such an intervention would result in increased female LFP, as was the case in other (mostly developed) countries around the world. In the context of Armenia, however, it was observed that there was no significant effect on the female LFP rate on the extensive margin, meaning there was no evidence of inactive women entering the labor force. One possible explanation is that in the context of a developing country such as Armenia, the limiting factor to female participation in the labor force is the lack of market demand for the skills profile of non-active mothers. In such an environment, as the authors conclude, the monetary incentives do not lift the binding constraint on LFP.

A study by Karen Mumford, Antonia Parera-Nicolau, and Yolanda Pena-Boquete “Labour Supply and Childcare: Allowing Both Parents to Choose” examined the case of Australia and looked at how labor hours and LFP by both women and men in the family are affected when either the mother’s or father’s wages increase or when the price of childcare changes. The study found that mothers’ labor hours respond positively and much more forcefully to a change in their own hourly wage than is the case for fathers. The policy implication is that an increase in mothers’ hourly wages would potentially result in a significant increase in their working hours and labor market participation. The wage effect on women’s working hours and LFP is much more pronounced even compared to a scenario where childcare prices decline.

Overall, the studies in this area demonstrated the need for a careful, multi-faceted approach in designing effective and cost-efficient labor market policies aimed at increasing labor force participation by married women with children.


The paper by Norberto Pignatti and Karine Torosyan “Employment vs. homestay and happiness of women in the South Caucasus” looked at the differences in the reported happiness levels between women of different labor market statuses in the three South Caucasus countries. The intriguing finding of the study is that while there is no difference in the happiness level between working women and housewives in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan working women with similar characteristics are much less likely to report being “very happy”. Specifically interesting is that the overall results for Georgia also carry through to the Armenian and Azerbaijani minority women in the country, implying that “cultural factors” may play less of a role in the reported differences between countries.


Gender-biased sex selection (GBSS) has been at the forefront of gender policy issues in the South Caucasus, as Armenia, Azerbaijan, and, until recently, Georgia all struggled with the skewed sex ratio at birth (SRB). Understanding the driving forces behind GBSS and, in particular, understanding son preference as a socio-economic phenomenon is particularly important. One recent study on the issue was presented by Davit Keshelava of ISET Policy Institute. The paper “Social-Economic Policy Analysis with Regard to Son Preference and Gender-biased Sex Selection” looked at the factors underlying the rise and fall of GBSS in Georgia over the last 15 years. The study also gleaned facts about changing attitudes towards GBSS and son preferences in different regions of Georgia. One of the study’s main findings is that the fall in sex ratio at birth (SRB) has been statistically significantly correlated with real income growth in the regions, reduction in poverty, and female employment. Among other factors significantly affecting the reduction in sex ratio at birth, was, surprisingly, the level of male education, while female education was statistically insignificant.  The study documented still-prevailing son preferences, but also high awareness and strong negative attitudes towards gender-biased sex selection in the regions which showed the most improvement in sex ratio at birth over time.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Central and Eastern European countries affected in the 1990s by the same transitional forces as the South Caucasus demonstrated a different dynamic in gender preferences. In their paper “Gender Preferences in Central and Eastern Europe as Reflected in Family Structure” Izabela Wowczko, Michał Myck, and Monika Oczkowska looked at how gender preferences in families might have changed after the fall of communism in CEE countries. They indicate that gender-neutrality was observed in almost all CEE countries before the transition. Post-transition there emerges a clear preference for a mix (boy/girl) or possibly boys at parity three (i.e. having two boys or a boy and a girl in the family reduced the likelihood of having a third child significantly, as opposed to having two girls). However, at parity two, a girl preference was observed in most countries with the exception of Romania (i.e. there was an increased likelihood of having a second child if the first child was a boy).


A study from India by Mridula Goel and Nidhi Ravishankar “Has Public Policy succeeded in enhancing women’s autonomy and empowerment in India over the last decade?” looked at the link between public policies and indicators of women’s empowerment (such as the ability to decide how one’s own money is spent, etc.) They showed that in the last decade, public policies were indeed responsible for improving the so-called “power enablers”, such as literacy rates, financial access, property rights, political voice, etc. However, there is some evidence that not all traditional power enablers, e.g. having a bank account or working for cash, are correlated with higher indicators of empowerment, measured by a woman’s autonomy in decision-making within the family. For example, working for cash or having a bank account was found to be negatively correlated with a woman’s ability to decide how her own money is spent – possibly pointing to the existence of prejudice or negative attitudes within the household in such cases.

Another interesting study on this topic by Maria Perrotta Berlin, Evelina Bonnier, and Anders Olofsgård “The Donor Footprint and Female Empowerment” looked at whether foreign aid projects fostered female empowerment in the surrounding community using data from Malawi. The paper found support for a small positive impact of aid on men’s and women’s attitudes towards domestic violence and sexual rights. There is, however, little systematic difference in the impact of gender-targeted aid versus general aid – with the exceptions being the impacts on women’s experience of violence and women’s participation in decision-making.

To summarize, the first international academic conference on gender economics issues in Tbilisi highlighted the diversity and complexity of gender issues around the world and in the South Caucasus region in particular. Having a network of dedicated academics working on gender economics issues in the region gives a powerful stimulus for future reforms and progress in this area. Clearly, academic policy-oriented research can help inform the policy-making community of the areas where intervention is most needed, help design the most effective policies, and calculate the associated costs and benefits of interventions.

1 The conference was organized as part of the FROGEE initiative — the Forum for Research on Gender Economics — supported by the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) and coordinated by the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE).

The views and analysis in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the international School of Economics at TSU (ISET) or ISET Policty Institute.